In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Christian Art

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Studies
  • General Surveys
  • Collected Primary Sources
  • Recent Essay Collections
  • Exhibition and Collection Catalogues
  • Bibliographies
  • Encyclopedias and Handbooks
  • Data Resources
  • Journals
  • Cultural Studies and Reception Theory
  • Monumental Art
  • Sculpture
  • Manuscript Illumination
  • Minor Arts
  • Early Christian Archaeology

Art History Early Christian Art
Katherine Marsengill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0020


Early Christian art history encompasses a range of material loosely dated from the first known appearances of Christian art in the late second or early third century and continuing through the sixth, seventh, and sometimes even into the early eighth centuries. Early Christian art history, however, has proven to be an inchoate term, often overlapping with, or including, Early Byzantine art history. In previous divisions of the field, Early Byzantine art tended to be too politically confining when one considers cities such as Ravenna before and after its inclusion in the Eastern Byzantine Empire. On the other hand, Early Christian art implied only the earliest centuries, usually through the fourth or mid-fifth centuries, and usually centered on Roman monuments and works of art. Thus, many scholars today favor the term Late Antique in order to integrate the study of art and architecture of the Eastern Roman Empire and Western Roman Empire as well as to understand Christian art in dialogue with Jewish and pagan art. In terms of dating, scholars generally acknowledge the genesis of Christian art and architecture around 200 CE, although some pursue theories that Christians participated in visual culture in the early second century, if they had not yet developed a distinctly Christian visual language. In terms of geography, the eastern and western Mediterranean, Palestine and the Near East, and sometimes even northern Europe and Britain are all included. One result of this large geographical span has been the separation of Early Christian art in Rome, the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, the Near East, and so on. Since the late twentieth century, however, scholars have generally recognized a more cohesive Mediterranean world and a more fluid transition from Late Antiquity to medieval art and culture. Questions of continuity between these periods have ultimately made dating the end of “Early Christian” or “Late Antique” difficult, if not impossible. Most scholars see the end of Late Antiquity as coinciding with the death of Justinian I or, for the convenience of a rounded date, the year 600. Others argue the end of the period occurred at the beginning of the seventh century with the spread of Islam in the Near East and across North Africa. Byzantinists sometimes recognize the beginning of the iconoclastic controversy in 730 as the end of Late Antiquity. Accordingly, “true” Byzantine-era art begins after iconoclasm in the nineth century, what some refer to as the Middle Byzantine period, which marks the beginning of a distinguishable Byzantine state and extends until the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204, then followed by the Late Byzantine period (until 1453). Those who assert the continuity of Late Antique traditions in early Islamic art have recently broached the year 800 as the cut-off point.

Foundational Studies

The study of Early Christian art—beyond the earliest surveys of Christian monuments of Rome in the seventeenth century and the antiquarianism characteristic of the eighteenth century (with perhaps the exception of Johann Winckelmann, who published his Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums in 1764)—began in earnest in the nineteenth century. German and Italian archaeologists led research in the field with the publication of scientific monographs and multivolume descriptions. De Rossi surveyed the catacombs (de Rossi 1864–1877) and Christian inscriptions (de Rossi 1869–1888), while Garrucci provided a general overview of Early Christian art in Rome (Garrucci 1872–1880). Salzenberg 1857 expands beyond Rome with a survey of the monuments of Constantinople. Sybel 1906–1909 made strides in the field in situating Early Christian art within the larger context of antique art. Wilpert 1916 documents the wall paintings of all churches in Rome until the thirteenth century, a resource that remains essential. Wilpert’s volumes on Early Christian sarcophagi (Wilpert 1929–1936) and the paintings in catacombs (Wilpert 1903) are also useful references.

  • de Rossi, Giovanni Battista. La Roma sotterranea cristiana. 3 vols. Rome: Cromo-litografia Pontificia, 1864–1877.

    De Rossi is credited with the discovery of several Early Christian catacombs. His multivolume corpus is considered the first scientific survey of these monuments.

  • de Rossi, Giovanni Battista. Inscriptiones christianae urbis Romae. 2 vols. Rome: Ex Officina Libraria Pontificia, 1869–1888.

    Of interest more to epigraphy, but it is useful in providing examples that include drawings of accompanying symbols, Christograms, and vegetal motifs, animals, and figures. Catalogues all available Early Christian inscriptions in Rome with descriptions and locations.

  • Garrucci, P. R. Storia dell’arte cristiana nei primi otto secoli della chiesa. 6 vols. Prato, Italy: Guasti, 1872–1880.

    Contains 500 drawings of all the monuments that were accessible at the time. The first volume lays out theoretical considerations and five subsequent volumes cover catacomb painting and decoration, sarcophagi, nonfunerary sculpture, and minor arts.

  • Salzenberg, Wilhelm. Altchristliche Baudenkmale von Konstantinopel. Berlin: Ernst & Korn, 1857.

    The major contribution to the field by the first scholar allowed access to the church of Hagia Sophia when it was being restored by the Fossati brothers in the 1840s. His descriptions and plans are not entirely accurate due to the limited nature of the survey, but the color lithographs are stunning.

  • Sybel, Ludwig von. Christliche Antike: Einführung in die altchristliche Kunst. 2 vols. Marburg, Germany: N. G. Elwert, 1906–1909.

    The first volume covers the catacombs, including a review of scholarly literature, overview of the construction and layout of catacombs and tombs, and paintings. Discussion of iconography factors, as well. Volume 2 covers sculpture—mostly sarcophagi (comprehensively includes various cities in Italy, North Africa, and Spain) and architecture.

  • Wilpert, Josef. Le pitture delle catacombe romane. Rome: Desclée-Lefebvre, 1903.

    Published in German at the same time as Die Malereien der Katakomben Roms (Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herdersche Verlagshandlung, 1903). A monumental publication cataloguing the paintings from the catacombs of Rome.

  • Wilpert, Josef. Die römischen Mosaiken und Malereien der kirchlichen Bauten vom IV. bis XIII. Jahrhundert. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Herder, 1916.

    Four monumental volumes cataloguing the mosaics and wall paintings of the Early Christian and medieval churches of Rome, including descriptions and watercolor plates with full compositions as well as details illustrated. Remains one of the best resources for this material.

  • Wilpert, Josef. I sarcofagi cristiani antichi. 3 vols. Rome: Pontificio Istitutio di Archeologia Christiana, 1929–1936.

    Publication with large black-and-white photographs of the sarcophagi produced by the early Christians in Rome.

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